PLAYA VISTA, Calif. -- In two seasons together, Clippers point guard Baron Davis and former coach Mike Dunleavy were a bad fit.
Whether you believe this was because of Davis' stubborn proclivity for improvisation or the coach's stubborn proclivity for control -- or both -- the duo appeared an odd match from the outset and their inability to coexist was predictable. One of the two would eventually need to go.
Enter new coach Vinny Del Negro, along with the usual questions that swirl around the Clippers every season, as Monday's media day kicked off a new round of inquiries.
Will the talent on paper translate to wins in the real world? Will everyone stay healthy? Will the Clippers take a permanent step toward elevating beyond second-class status in Los Angeles? All relevant issues, and there's no doubt the Clippers could be capable of providing fits around the league. But at the end of the day, unless Davis buys in, the Clippers don't figure to go very far.
It's obviously much too early to make a judgment in either direction, but the 2010-11 season is at least off to a promising start.
For starters, concessions are being made for Davis' playing style. After he trudged unhappily through Dunleavy's half-court system, Davis' eyes grew like saucers while discussing the prospect of getting out and running.
"It's a challenge to me, to increase my speed and be a catalyst out there on the defensive end," he said. "Picking up the ball and pushing the ball on the break. When you've got guys, [Chris] Kaman, that can come down on the break and shoot the ball. You've got Blake [Griffin] and [Ryan] Gomes and Eric Gordon that can get out on the break and finish; that kind of makes my job easy.
"I just want to be able to be in the position where I can be a menace out there on the floor, as far as seeing the court and attacking the defense that's standing in the lane and get these guys easy shots."
Davis also expressed happiness about his relationship with his new coach. There appears to be more common ground in the vision of Davis' role, so as to play to his strengths.
"What Coach has done with me is he's been in constant communication, as far as telling me what he sees for me in my future," Davis said. "I think that he believes in me a whole lot. That kind of pushes and drives me to want to become better and better, because he's played in the league and he's played around a lot of great players that are Hall of Famers. He continues to tell me that he wants to push me to be an All-Star level and to be one of the dominant players in this league.
"For me, I'm all ears and I'm all work, and I just want my work and the product of what we put on the court to be judged by it."
Del Negro also appears determined to get something in return when he gives. He didn't hide his feelings about how Davis didn't arrive at camp in quite the shape Del Negro expected. Mind you, Del Negro went out of his way to emphasize how the former UCLA Bruin, who has lost some offseason weight, is actually in "pretty good" shape, and if there were a game tomorrow, he could get through it fine.
But there's a difference between pretty good and excellent, and by broaching the subject, Del Negro made it clear there are no exceptions to whatever standard has been set, no matter the player.
"Baron and myself have had a lot of conversations, because I know and he knows how important he is to this team," Del Negro said. "He has to be ready to play, and play the right way and play hard and be in shape. And he's willing to do that. But talking about it and actually getting it done are two different things. He knows his responsibility and the accountability of not only himself, but all the players, and how we need to play."
Even more optimistically, Davis and Del Negro agree on another important matter: Both say the playoffs are a possibility for the Clippers this season, despite the Western Conference's competitive nature and the learning curve facing the team's younger players. In theory, this is true, but not without the chain of command in place and honored. While one could argue the game plan under Dunleavy was often faulty, the chances for success were hardly enhanced by Davis' seeming resistance. Davis' reputation for coach-killing precedes him, but in the face of increased freedom, his response when asked who runs the team on the court was simultaneously ironic and hopeful.
"Coach Vinny Del Negro," Davis said with a grin.
Whether this assessment turns out to be sincere or politically correct is arguably the key to the season.
Andrew Kamenetzky covers the NBA and co-authors the Land O' Lakers blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com.